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Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.

[…]

David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.

Back to college, COVID-style

Not the return anyone was hoping for.

Texas A&M University’s new president M. Katherine Banks said this spring that she anticipated a “fall [semester] of joy” when the university reopens after 15 months of lockdowns and remote learning.

She wasn’t alone. As coronavirus case numbers dropped throughout the spring, higher education leaders across the state excitedly announced the return of in-person classes, 100% capacity at football games and an end to social distancing requirements for the fall.

But just a few weeks before students are expected to return to campus, university leaders are faced once again with uncertainty as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads throughout the state and country. This time, public university administrators are tasked with trying to mitigate the virus on campus without the ability to reinstitute mask mandates or require vaccines due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such directives. They’ll be limited in how they can respond even as the Centers for Disease Control has advised fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors to prevent the spread of the virus and some students and faculty have expressed worry about how safe their return to campus will be.

“As the fall semester approaches, I have a feeling of déjà vu, albeit an unwelcome one,” wrote University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell in a letter to the university community on July 30. “I recall last summer and winter, as we prepared to start semesters in the face of a COVID-19 virus that has an uncanny ability to time increasing threats to coincide with the academic calendar.”

While universities say they are monitoring the delta variant and whether they’ll need to pivot, many are moving ahead with previously decided reopening plans, including full football stadiums and in-person classes, while encouraging everyone to wear a mask and get vaccinated. Yet faculty and some students say they are increasingly worried about how they can effectively protect themselves and others on campuses where leaders can’t prevent unmasked or unvaccinated students and employees from entering and unknowingly spreading the virus.

[…]

Much of the frustration among faculty, staff and students is due to Abbott’s executive orders limiting masks and vaccine mandates. The faculty senate at A&M is scheduled to vote next week on a resolution calling on the state to allow universities to make their own decisions and “follow the science in their efforts to combat COVID-19.”

“There are heavy concerns when you think about the fact that institutions like A&M, the University of Texas … have a rich history based on the study of scientific principles,” said Dale Rice, speaker of the Texas A&M Faculty Senate. “And now they’re being constrained from following the science.”

Last week, a group of student leaders at UT-Austin slammed the governor for not allowing universities to make decisions on their own campuses, but also urged UT-Austin to do more.

“[I]t is also irresponsible for the University of Texas to plan for a full re-opening with little to no virtual classes available,” the letter from student leaders across various colleges read. “We have been made witness to the vast benefits of virtual learning for students, faculty, and staff who are disabled, have to work 2-3 jobs to keep up with the rising living costs in Austin, or have adapted to working or learning from home.”

For sure, the vast majority of people would prefer to be back on campus if that can be done safely, but as long as it cannot then remote learning for those who want or need it must be provided as well. Really, though, this is about vaccines and mandates. All of these campuses would be vastly safer if the overwhelming majority of people on them were vaccinated, and the only way to get there is to mandate it. You know, as they have done for decades for things like measles and whooping cough and meningitis. Legally speaking, there’s nothing to stop any campus from such a requirement, as past precedent and current judicial rulings demonstrate. The barrier is the threat that Abbott and the Republicans in the Legislature would zero out their funding.

(Note that I drafted this two weeks ago – there’s been too much damn news, y’all – and since then Rice University has announced that it will begin with virtual learning, though students are on campus.)

I can’t and don’t speak for any of these institutions. Some of them claim to be doing quite well on the vaccination front (we’ll see that in a minute), and good for them if so. But for any school that’s not well above the 80% mark – not just students, but faculty and staff and volunteers and contractors and pretty much everyone else who is regularly on campus – I’d be taking a hard look at our risks, both in terms of an outbreak and how likely the Lege actually is to follow through on a de-funding threat. Where is the bigger exposure? They all need to try to answer that question.

UTEP’s leaders said they feel they can reopen safely due to high vaccination rates in the surrounding community, citing in a note to the school community that more than 80% of El Paso residents 12 years or older have had at least one dose of the vaccine. The school has also ended testing for faculty and staff, encouraging them to use community testing centers, but will provide testing for students throughout the fall semester.

UTEP, along with some other Texas public and private universities, has asked students to voluntarily share their vaccine status.

Officials at UTEP estimated two-thirds of students and 90% of employees are fully vaccinated. Texas Tech University in Lubbock estimated about 75% of students and 90% of faculty are vaccinated, based on a voluntary spring survey. Baylor University said in a note that 47% of the campus community is vaccinated. Texas Christian University is also asking students to share their vaccine status ahead of the fall semester, but are not requiring vaccines and has said masks are “expected” but not required for unvaccinated students (NOTE: See update at the end).

[…]

Some private universities across the state have reacted to the increase in positive cases with stricter measures, though vaccines remain optional. On Tuesday, Rice University in Houston announced masks will be required indoors in group settings. Rice is also asking all students and employees to share their vaccination status. Those who are fully vaccinated must get tested every two weeks. Unvaccinated members coming to campus must test two times per week.

Trinity University in San Antonio is also requiring masks indoors and weekly tests for those who are unvaccinated. Baylor told students it will require weekly COVID-19 testing for the first part of the fall semester for students and employees, except for fully vaccinated students and students who have had a positive test within the last 180 days. St. Edward’s University in Austin initially said it would require a vaccine for all students, but later stated students could be exempt from that requirement under the governor’s executive order.

Emphasis mine. If you needed a reason to avoid Waco this fall, there you have it. There is definitely room here for colleges and universities, public and private, to at least put some of the costs of Delta on the unvaccinated. More frequent testing is an obvious one, but let’s not stop there. Require a vaccine or a positive test to attend sporting events, participate in intramural sports, attend any kind of public indoor event like lectures or movies or parties or concerts, eat in the cafeterias, and so on. Get vaxxed or stay distant, for your safety and everyone else’s, simple as that. That’s more likely to draw a lawsuit than a legislative response, but if so then there’s a decent chance you can get some people vaccinated before you’re forced to put the policy on hold, and maybe you won’t be forced to pause at all. See my earlier comment about evaluating risks and acting accordingly. Anything that results in more vaccinations should be strongly considered, even if it winds up being a short-term measure. Push that envelope, the long-term payoff is worth it. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I received a message from TCU informing me that their policies have changed since that Trib story was published. They now require masks for indoor spaces. My thanks to them for the feedback.

Big XII visits the Lege

It’s something to do, anyway.

As the University of Texas prepares for a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, state lawmakers are working to determine how the move will affect the rest of the state — and whether they might be able to intervene in such a move in the future.

The first hearing of the committee on the future of college sports in Texas on Monday produced more questions than answers. Senators, economists and representatives of the universities left behind brainstormed how the Big 12 could remain viable — perhaps by adding up-and-coming Texas programs such as the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University.

But with the exits of UT and the University of Oklahoma sealed, there was little lawmakers could do but commiserate and propose potential solutions.

“I think there are options for us to partner with other conferences, there may be opportunity for mergers, there may be opportunities to add members,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. “There may be other opportunities that are currently unforeseen. … The multitude and severity of the challenges that are out there right now is likely to cause lots of changes.”

The eight remaining schools — which include Waco’s Baylor University, Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University and Lubbock’s Texas Tech — agree that “staying together is probably our best approach in the near-term,” Bowlsby said.

[…]

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the chair of the newly formed committee, said she’d invited representatives from UT and ESPN to testify on Monday, but they declined. Texas A&M, which left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, also rejected an invitation.

See here for some background on the committee. Nothing is going to happen, as this issue isn’t on the special session agenda and of course there’s a quorum break going on, but everyone got to express their feelings, and I’m sure that helped. As for UT, they weren’t there to share their perspective, but they still had something to say.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on Monday publicly defended the school’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference along with the University of Oklahoma in 2025 and denied Texas lawmakers’ claims that the school violated Big 12 bylaws in doing so.

“This future move is the right thing for our student athletes for our student athletes, our programs and our University in the face of rapid change and increased uncertainty,” Hartzell said.

[…]

“It is timed to avoid the legislature in its legislative session, where it is structured with the power to make decisions,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Hartzell said that he initiated discussions with the SEC in the spring — while the regular legislative session was going on.

He disputed claims made by lawmakers and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the Texas school violated the league’s bylaws by not giving advance notice of their departure.

“I want to set the record straight — we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell said. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Lawmakers argue that the process was done in the dark, and would have far-reaching effects on the remaining schools in the conference, notably the three that reside in Texas.

See here for more on the accusations of UT and OU’s alleged duplicity along with ESPN. Lord knows, this Legislature knows how to do things in the dark. Game recognizes game.

SEC accepts UT and OU

Time to start printing the money.

The Southeastern Conference voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to invite the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma to join their 14-member league during a meeting with the league member’s presidents and chancellors.

“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”

[…]

Meanwhile, UT and OU could see their revenue climb significantly through the move from television revenue, ticket revenue and additional branding opportunities.

The decision may also tie into a Supreme Court ruling last month that says athletes can earn money based on their intellectual property, meaning flagship schools must find new ways to earn revenue.

Although UT and OU said in their letter to [Big XII Commissioner Bob] Bowlsby that they don’t plan to renew their deal with the conference past 2025, there is speculation that the two schools would not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025. They would need to pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early, but are still legally required to give 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

“I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports. “That’s what they’ve done so far.”

After two closed session meetings this week, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted late Wednesday afternoon to support Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, despite concerns the Board had over the “communication process.” A&M joined the SEC from the Big 12 a decade ago.

“The board concluded that this expansion would enhance the long-term value of the SEC to student athletes and all of the institutions they represent — including Texas A&M,” the statement read.

See here for the previous update, and see here for the story on the A&M Board of Regents getting on board, presumably once they realized the money involved. Put a pin in that quote from Bob Bowlsby, there will be more about him and the Big XII tomorrow. You know I believe that UT and OU will be playing SEC conference games well before 2025, but there may be more obstacles in that path than I first thought. The Chron has more.

UT and OU make it officially official

Smell ya later, Big XII.

After a week of speculation, the University of Texas at Austin announced Tuesday that alongside the University of Oklahoma it has asked to join the Southeastern Conference starting July 1, 2025.

The news came a day after both schools announced they would not renew their media rights contract with the Big 12 in 2025. If the two schools were to join the SEC, they would join the likes of top football schools such as University of Florida, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama.

“We believe that there would be mutual benefit to the Universities on the one hand, and the SEC on the other hand, for the Universities to become members of the SEC,” UT President Jay Hartzell and OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr. said in a joint letter to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Sankey said in a statement that while the SEC hasn’t actively pursued new members, it will welcome change when there is consensus among members.

“We will pursue significant change when there is a clear consensus among our members that such actions will further enrich the experiences of our student-athletes and lead to greater academic and athletic achievement across our campuses,” Sankey said.

The move leaves the rest of the Big 12 conference, which includes Texas Tech University, Baylor University and Texas Christian University, in a state of uncertainty. Monday afternoon, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement that the remaining eight institutions will work together to ensure future success.

“Although our eight members are disappointed with the decisions of these two institutions, we recognize that intercollegiate athletics is experiencing rapid change and will most likely look much different in 2025 than it does currently,” Bowlsby said. “The Big 12 Conference will continue to support our member institutions’ efforts to graduate student-athletes, and compete for Big 12 and NCAA championships.”

The Monday news was about saying goodbye to the Big XII, or at least saying that they wanted to say goodbye. This is about saying Hello to the SEC, which one presumes will be returned in kind. I suppose it’s possible that things could go pear-shaped from here, but that would be a huge upset. Most likely, if you’re a Longhorn or Sooner, get ready to start shelling out for new SEC-branded gear.

A personal anecdote: Back in 2003, during the long special session slog to re-redistrict Texas on Tom DeLay’s orders, Rice played UT in a football game at Reliant Stadium. I contributed a bit to the MOB halftime script for that show, which was about the redistricting saga and how we should never leave the task of redistricting to politicians. “After all,” the bit concluded, “the last time the Governor got involved with redistricting, Baylor wound up in the Big XII”. It got a big laugh from the mostly UT fans. Seems like the joke holds up pretty well all these years later.

There is of course political involvement in this round of Conference Bingo, and so naturally our state’s biggest self-promoter has rushed out to the front of the parade in hope of being mistaken for a leader.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked Sen. Jane Nelson to chair a new select committee on the “Future of College Sports in Texas,” a move that came hours after Texas and Oklahoma issued a joint statement to the Big 12 that served as the first step toward leaving the conference.

In a tweet sent out Monday night Patrick said the committee’s purpose would be to “study the athletic & economic impact to TX schools & communities by UT’s exit.” A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2.

This is just the latest bit of political theatre in the face of the state flagship’s impending departure from the Big 12, a conference it founded in 1994 that currently includes four Texas-based members: UT, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech.

Hey, Dan, let me know when you plan to have a hearing to fix the grid and claw back some of the money that was heisted from way too many paying customers from the freeze.

The A&M and AAC responses to UT and OU and the SEC

Moving from denial to bluster.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has a message for any newcomers to the Southeastern Conference: “We’re ready.”

Texas and Oklahoma are preparing to exit the Big 12 and join the SEC, just as A&M did nearly a decade ago. The Longhorns and Sooners are expected to inform the Big 12 this coming week and begin preparing for their pending exits — and how soon they join the SEC (whether by 2022 or as late as 2025) is to be determined.

“We believe that throughout our time in the SEC, Texas A&M has become stronger than ever,” Bjork told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “We’re the largest university in Texas and in the SEC. We have 550,000 former students. We’re knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, and our women’s basketball team is the reigning SEC champion. We’ve got so many Olympians. There are so many great things and strengths about our program.

“As you look at all of this and our landscape, our position is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to join?’ The SEC is in the best position to lead in this transformative time in college athletics, and obviously there are others wanting to join us in that journey. Here in Texas, we’ve paved that way, and we’ve been leading that way over the last 10 years.”

A&M and other SEC programs apparently were largely kept out of the loop on informal discussions among UT, OU and the SEC in recent months, and Bjork said A&M is addressing that with the league.

“Those conversations are being had … there are definitely procedural matters that need to come forward, and those things are being discussed,” Bjork said.

A&M is pivoting from its early stance when the Chronicle broke the news on Wednesday at SEC Media Days that UT and OU intended to join the powerful conference.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t blame A&M for feeling blindsided by this, but their first mistake was in thinking that anyone outside Aggie Nation cared. It’s all about the money, y’all.

I also found this amusing.

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12.

For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it.

It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.”

Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore.

And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU.

The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions.

For what it’s worth, in my previous update I linked to a Yahoo News story that suggested it would be the diminished Big XII that would be aggressive in courting AAC schools to join them. That has been the normal flow of events in the conference-hopping game, though one must admit that “Big XII minus UT and OU” is a lot less formidable, and maybe not so much bigger or grander than the AAC or the Mountain West. I just enjoyed the Mouse That Roared energy from this story. Maybe it plays that way and maybe it doesn’t, but I suppose there’s no harm in assuming one is now on equal terms with a former big boy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

Some legislators want to keep UT out of the SEC

This is kind of hilarious.

As the college athletics world roils over the possibility of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 conference, a group of Texas legislators with ties to other universities in the state has mobilized.

Four prominent lawmakers — one each with ties to Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University — met with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff Thursday, one day after news broke that UT and OU had reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining, according to a source briefed about the meeting and an Abbott spokesperson. Abbott is a UT alumnus and outspoken Longhorn fan.

The four lawmakers were Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee and attended Texas A&M; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who received his law degree and MBA from Texas Tech and chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee; Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and was a student body president at Baylor; and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former TCU athlete. Kolkhorst declined comment and the other three lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comments Thursday evening.

Leach and Burrows have already expressed their concern about a potential move on social media, with Leach saying on Twitter that he was “working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.”

“This is about much more than college sports,” Leach wrote. “The impact UT’s decision would have on communities & businesses all across Texas would be real, substantial and potentially devastating. On behalf of those concerned Texans, the Texas Legislature has an obligation to be involved.”

See here for the background. Nothing is happening in the Lege right now, for obvious reasons, and one wonders what motivation “outspoken Longhorns fan” Abbott would have to stop his alma mater from making this move, since he’d have to add the item to the next special session agenda. For sure, if UT and OU leave the Big XII it will consign TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech to a diminished future, but that’s a result of longtime forces in college sports. Their foundation wouldn’t be any firmer, they’d just be holding off the tide for another day. Speaking again as a fan of a team that was left behind in the 90s, I understand their fears, but by the same token since they were among the leavers, I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t rush to sympathize. Sean Pendergast, Jerome Solomon, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: There’s now a bill to effect this end, HB298. If it gets added to the call, and if there’s a quorum when that happens, then maybe that has a chance. Don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: I’m dying:

Sources: Gov. Abbott not returning calls from top Republicans in the Texas Legislature about UT trying to head to the SEC

Republicans like Chairman Dustin Burrows and Chair Brian Birdwell have filed bills to block UT from changing conferences, but of course that’s not on the special session agenda. The governor’s office has gone quiet.

There’s been a real distinct lack of high comedy this legislative season. I want to thank the universities of Texas and Oklahoma for providing the opportunity to bring a little of that back.

Are the college conference dominoes set up for a tumble again?

This would be a big deal.

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon.

Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first national superconference.

“Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics,” UT responded in a statement Wednesday. “We will not address rumors or speculation.”

OU, in its own similar statement, offered: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

[…]

Another person with knowledge of the schools’ interest in jumping to the SEC said it could be the first step in the long-awaited break between haves and have-nots in the college sports world. Most of those scenarios have involved four superconferences of 16 schools each, but the observer said the eventual winnowing down could result in an NFL-like scenario with as few as 20 to 30 schools in the top tier.

The eventual impact, the second source said, could be the biggest change agent in college sports since the 1984 court decision involving Oklahoma and Georgia that allowed schools to market certain media rights without being limited to conference-only agreements.

“You’re going to see shifts happen like they’ve never happened before,” he added, “but it’s not going to happen for another three years.”

The recent developments in athletics (possible expansion of the college football playoff) and legal circles (players’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness) are leading Oklahoma and Texas to consider moves based not on regional or competitive ties but on economic forces.

The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that the two networks had declined to discuss extending the contract past 2025.

“The general result is that, at this time, with so much uncertainty in the media marketplace as well as the landscape for collegiate athletics, our partners, ESPN and FOX, are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in late May. “They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go.”

As colleges face new challenges with name, image and likeness reforms and the recent Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the NCAA’s beloved “student-athlete” model, the second source said, more powerful schools will seek to protect their economic base by flocking to like-minded superpowers.

“Schools have worked so hard to hide the fact that the collegiate game is nothing but the NFL hiding behind the veil of education,” the second source said. “Sports is mirroring what is happening in the broader context of society. It is not exempt from the same forces that affected K-mart or Blockbuster, who enjoyed success but were not able to change. To survive, you have to be able to change in real time.”

As the story notes, it’s been nine years since Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC; Nebraska and Colorado also departed the conference, for the Big 10 and the PAC 12, respectively. A&M’s athletic director is quoted in the story as being unfavorable to the idea – basically, A&M got there first and they deserve to have the SEC to themselves – but I doubt that will carry much weight in the end. Money talks, and UT and OU represent a lot of it.

If this happens, and I’m inclined to believe it will, we will wind up with a vastly different college athletics landscape in short order. For one thing, the Big XII will lose pretty much all of its glamour, and may well end up on the outside looking in when that “four 16-team superconference” world comes into existence. (On the plus side, UH might finally get accepted into the Big XII.) As a longtime fan of a school that’s never going to be more than cannon fodder in this world, I’m not interested in the palace intrigue of it all. You have to be able to handle a lot of cognitive dissonance to be a college sports fan. The recent NCAA ruling over “name, image, likeness” rights makes things a little better for the athletes themselves, but this is never going to be an equitable world. You make your peace with it or you find some other thing to occupy your Saturdays in the fall and weekends in March. ESPN and Texas Monthly, which is warming up the death knell for the Big XII, have more.

You will eventually need a COVID booster shot

Just get used to the idea.

More than 28 percent of Texans 16 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, having received either one shot of the Johnson & Johnson or two of Moderna or Pfizer. But as scientists continue to study the virus and emerging variants, they’re concluding that even the fully vaccinated may need booster shots to stay protected.

“It might be necessary because of waning immunity,” said Dr. Wesley Long, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist Hospital. “It might be necessary if we have a variant strain of COVID that maybe the original vaccines doesn’t protect against as well.”

So far, it’s looking probable people will require a booster shot around the holiday season. But there are still many unknowns.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe for a year now, clinical trials for the vaccine haven’t been around as long. The most recent data from vaccine manufacturers show that the shots offer at least six months of protection, but researchers won’t know until the end of the year whether immunity lasts a full 12 months.

[…]

To test whether patients have lost protection, public health agencies and vaccine manufacturers will likely keep a close eye on the rate of hospitalizations and deaths. If people lose immunity, it’ll likely taper off gradually rather than come to an abrupt end.

“One of two things can happen: We may lose protection against all COVID-19 symptoms, the mild and the severe, which would be a problem, right?” said Dr. Hana El Sahly, an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Or it might be that we only lose protection against the mild symptoms, but retain protection against the severe symptoms.”

Researchers are still studying how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is similar to other respiratory illnesses. While the disease has drawn some comparisons to influenza strains, the vaccines may work differently than flu shots, which require new vaccines every year to fend off emerging strains.

Even if the COVID-19 vaccine goes the way of the flu shot, experts say it’s not a bad sign.

“People shouldn’t be surprised, and it doesn’t mean that the original vaccines are a failure at all,” Long said. The vaccine will still keep people from dying and help them avoid the hospital.

Yeah, I’ve seen news stories about the likelihood of needing annual COVID shots, like one needs annual flu shots, for some time now. One reason for this is that there are new variants emerging with regularity.

College Station is best known as the home of Texas A&M University, but as of this month, researchers have confirmed it’s now the birthplace of a new COVID-19 strain.

Only one student has tested positive for BV-1, named for the Brazos Valley. They were diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 5 and experienced mild respiratory symptoms. A second test on March 25 turned up positive results, worrying researchers the variant would cause a longer infection in young adults.

“We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern,” Ben Neuman, a Texas A&M virologist, said in a statement. “This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies.”

Viruses mutate, it’s what they do. So far, the known variants have all still been controlled by the existing vaccines, but eventually one or more of them will be more resistant. As long as there continues to be a significant population of people who wish to be a reservoir for the virus (read: anti-vaxxers), the virus will have plenty of opportunity to do its thing. As for the rest of us, vaccinations are all around us.

Walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinics are now all the rage in Houston, as larger allocations and dwindling demand change the scarcity-fueled dynamic of the past several months.

“Now, there is more supply than there is demand,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a Monday afternoon news conference at NRG Park. “That means we have more vaccines than we have people willing to get them.”

As of Monday, 44 percent of Texans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, vaccine administration is beginning to plateau at 250,000 doses per day, while vaccine manufacturers produce more doses a week, with 14.5 million shipped nationwide every week as of mid-April.

Harris County’s vaccine site, NRG Park, has abandoned the waitlist system that frustrated residents who found it difficult to schedule a time slot in advance. While the site, run jointly by the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still recommends scheduling an appointment ahead of time to guarantee a dose, anyone age 16 or older can arrive on foot or by car during operating hours for a shot.

In addition, St. Luke’s Health is operating a walk-in clinic at Texas Southern University this week. Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers walk-up vaccines for veterans, caregivers and spouses.

Get your shot if you haven’t already. Make sure everyone you know gets theirs. And then be ready to do it again, sometime in 2022. This is the world we live in now.

The COVID breathalyzer test

Sounds promising.

Texas A&M researchers and a Dallas artificial intelligence company are developing a rapid COVID-19 test that would use a breathalyzer, rather than a swab, and potentially make it safer to hold large gatherings.

The testing device, housed in a kiosk that can fit in the back of an SUV, could be set up outside of large group settings such as schools, churches and corporate offices.

People would step up to the device and, with a disposable straw, blow into a copper hole on the front of the kiosk.

The system captures the user’s breath and analyzes it for compounds that a body generates when it’s fighting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Users would receive the results within a minute of the test through a mobile app.

“It’s all about establishing a controlled environment where people can interact and have confidence about it,” said Rob Gorham, executive director of SecureAmerica Institute, a network of public institutions and private manufacturing and technology companies based at Texas A&M. “It can create more normalcy around establishing these trusted group settings, whether it be an airplane or a football stadium.”

The device, called Worlds Protect, is a collaboration between Texas A&M researchers, who developed the hardware for the testing systems, and Worlds Inc., which developed the artificial intelligence software.

Here’s a story on Texas A&M’s website about the development. They’re waiting for FDA approval, and could start manufacturing the devices as soon as March. The devices cost about $5,000, and each test costs less than fifty cents, so it would be reasonably cost effective for, say, a pro sports team or stadium to buy a few and use them as a prerequisite for attending a live event. I would hope that the test is aggressive about flagging questionable results – the default should be “go get yourself a real test”, so that there are essentially no false positives. Better to turn away a hundred COVID-free people than to let one COVID-positive person in the door. If this fulfills its promise, it’s a big step in the direction of returning to “normal”.

Coronavirus and college sports update

What life is like for Texas’ college football teams.

In the world of COVID-19-era college football, Sunday is a day not for resting but for testing.

Each Sunday this fall brings a new set of checklists and guideposts that players and staff members must negotiate before they can think about playing, let alone winning, on any given Saturday.

It has not been a uniformly smooth road for Texas’ 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Nine of the 12 have had at least one game on their revised schedules affected by their own positive COVID tests or those of an opponent.

This weekend alone, Texas A&M and Rice were idle because their games against Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, respectively, were postponed as college football enters the final month of its truncated, delayed regular season. Nationally, 15 games were postponed or canceled this weekend.

But with the exception of Rice, which delayed its season opener into October, each of the 12 Texas schools will exit this weekend having played at least a half-dozen games, which speaks to their success in maintaining the discipline required for success and health.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in the most social time of their lives to be more mature than many adults are being,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job of following the rules and being disciplined.”

A month remains, though, in which things can go awry quickly.

“We can’t let our guard down,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork. “We can’t get too comfortable, especially with our communities surging right now. But everyone has done a great job.”

While each of the five conferences represented by the 12 Texas schools — the American Athletic, Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt — have their own weekly procedures, all are on the same approximate schedule.

You can read on for the details, but basically it’s testing on Sunday and at least one other day, contact tracing and quarantining anyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive, coordinating with the visiting teams, and so on. With the exception of Texas State, every school that is playing football has had at least one game postponed, with those that had scheduled non-conference games having them mostly or all canceled. I’ll be honest, this has gone better than I expected in terms of getting the games played – the effect of the outbreak in the towns that have these universities is another story, but that’s about more than just the games – though the wisdom of doing this at all seems to have been accepted regardless of the outcome. I think we’re going to be debating that for a long time.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when college basketball normally gets underway. Suffice it to say, there are challenges. At least football is played outdoors, where some of the COVID risks can be minimized. If there’s going to be basketball of any kind before a vaccine is fully rolled out, I don’t see how it can be done with fans in the stands. We’ll know what they’re up to soon.

The Big XII will play football

That’s their plan, anyway.

The start of the Big 12 Conference’s college football season will move forward as scheduled, conference officials said Wednesday, meaning four major Texas football programs are one step closer to playing this fall.

“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement. The season will kick off Sept. 26, with the conference championship pegged for Dec. 12.

Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin are Big 12 members. The conference presidents’ decision to allow football during the coronavirus pandemic was made official Wednesday morning, a day after the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced their seasons would be postponed until the spring semester.

Bowlsby said member schools have committed to enhanced COVID-19 testing, with three tests per week in high contact sports. Non-conference football opponents must also adhere to testing protocols that match conference standards.

Texas A&M University is part of the Southeastern Conference, which has also signaled its intent to allow teams to play this fall.

“We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a statement Tuesday.

So that’s two Power 5 conferences not playing in the fall, two that say they are, and the ACC. Of course, there are a ton of questions that will have to be addressed before this can be taken seriously, such as “how exactly are you going to keep all those people safe”, “what will be the protocol when someone (or several someones) tests positive”, and “do you really think that allowing fans in the stands is a good idea”. You can have all the bravado you want, but you better have some idea of what you’re doing when something inevitably goes wrong. In the meantime, all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting autumn. Or possibly spring, if things do change. Reform Austin has more.

Optimism abounds in the AAC

Good luck with that.

In the face of a pandemic, the American Athletic Conference will attempt to conduct business as usual this football season.

A plan announced Wednesday will allow AAC schools, including the University of Houston, to play a full 12-game schedule, if they so choose, and begin the season on time, even as COVID-19 continues to grip the U.S.

The AAC will play all eight of its conference games as originally scheduled beginning Sept. 19, and schools can schedule as many as four nonconference opponents, according to the plan unanimously approved by the AAC’s Board of Directors.

“We wanted to keep our eight-game schedule the way it was, not to be too disruptive to the teams,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said during a phone interview Wednesday. Asked about the uncertainty of playing a full 12-game schedule due to COVID-19, Aresco added: “We’re not sure that our teams can get to 12. There’s a lot that could affect that. This is the most unusual year we’ve ever faced.”

UH is expected to play an 11-game schedule, which begins Sept. 3 against Rice at TDECU Stadium. A 12th game — a nonconference trip to Washington State on Sept. 12 — was canceled with the Pac-12’s decision to play a conference-only schedule and is unlikely to be filled, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

I mean, I’m sure they’d like to do that. Many conferences are greatly restricting or eliminating non-conference games – the Big XII will allow for one non-conference game, others like the PAC 12 are doing none – so the extra games for AAC members may prove challenging to set up. Well, extra games with major-conference schools, anyway.

I remain perplexed by the belief that we’re going to have college football as if it were a normal year. The “bubble” concept seems to be working (or has worked) for basketball and soccer, while MLB baseball has had more than its share of problems with its rollout. I don’t see any reason to think that the players will be safe – never mind the coaches and staff and everyone else – and the idea that there could be fans in the stands is even more bizarre. On the other end of that spectrum, former AAC member UConn will not play football at all this fall. Maybe they’re the forward-thinking ones. The Trib has a more comprehensive roundup of what the various conferences are planning, for now. I’d assume all of that is written on the sand, at low tide. All I can say is, there’s not much time for things to get better before the games, such as they may be, begin.

Will college football shift to the spring?

Maybe.

[Dell] Billings, who graduated from A&M in 1995, also realizes it’s looking more like the brakes are about to be mashed on any “full speed ahead” approach, perhaps within a few weeks.

“I can’t see how we would be in the stands at Kyle Field when you have situations like ‘The Basketball Tournament’ that’s happening on ESPN right now and there are no fans,” Billings said. “That’s just a small tournament. How are you going to put 100,000 people inside a stadium in September?”

That is the multimillion-dollar question, one A&M, the Southeastern Conference and the rest of college football likely must answer by the end of this month.

“We said from the onset of this pandemic that circumstances around the virus would guide our decision-making, and it’s clear recent developments related to COVID-19 have not been trending in the right direction,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said this week. “There are important decisions to be made in the coming weeks, and by late July there should be more clarity about the fall season.”

The Ivy League on Wednesday is expected to announce that it will shift its football schedule to the spring semester. One Power Five administrator told The Athletic that could lead to a domino effect in college football.

“My suspicion is the majority of presidents in the (Football Bowl Subdivision) are uncomfortable with the notion of playing football this fall, but for various reasons don’t want to be the first to step out and say that,” the administrator told the website, adding that the Ivy League’s bold salvo “provides the cover” for others to follow suit.

The Ivy League has in fact suspended its fall sports schedule, including football. Other conferences are now taking baby steps in that direction.

The ACC will delay the start of competition for all fall sports until at least Sept. 1, the league announced Thursday. The move, which follows a similar decision by the Patriot League, will affect several sports, including soccer and field hockey, but not football.

The league said that affected games might be rescheduled and that there’s an understanding that cancellation of nonconference games will not result in financial penalties.

The ACC’s decision to delay the start of the fall season is the first by a Power 5 conference. The Patriot League has pushed its start back until Sept. 4, and the Ivy League announced the cancellation of all fall sports earlier this week.

The ACC’s football schedule is set to begin on Sept. 2 when NC State visits Louisville.

The decision was unanimously approved by the ACC board of directors.

As that story notes, while the football schedule hasn’t been affected yet, multiple schools have had to suspend workouts due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Big Ten has taken a different tack, cancelling all non-conference games. I don’t know what’s going to happen – pushing everything off till spring seems like a remote possibility at this time, at least for the big conferences – but having stadia packed with fans seems even crazier now. I’ll say this much – if the various pro sports leagues are successfully operating as of August, then maybe the NCAA can do so as well. But if the pros can’t do it, there’s no way in hell the collegians can do it.

We need to understand what we did wrong

So yeah, we need this.

Two of the nation’s most influential experts on the coronavirus pandemic, both based in Texas, are calling for an independent, nonpartisan investigation of the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus.

“We must prevent this from happening again,” said Gerald Parker, who directs the pandemic and biosecurity program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Public Service. “This is not going to be our last pandemic.”

Peter Hotez, a Houston-based vaccine researcher and frequent commentator on cable news, noted that the current virus, SARS-CoV-2, is the third coronavirus to pose a major health threat in the last 20 years. And given that outbreaks had already wreaked havoc in China and Europe, U.S. public health systems were notably slow to respond.

“What hurt Wuhan was what hurt New York City,” said Hotez, “which is that virus transmission went on for six weeks before there was any public health intervention.”

In a videotaped interview with John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, Parker suggested an investigation modeled on the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission.

[…]

Hotez, who also participated in the interview with Sharp, said later that he feared a congressional panel would become “a political circus.” Instead he proposed a review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Among the questions Hotez wants answered: How, for the whole month of February, did the U.S. miss evidence that the virus was already here? Given the crowding and high number of underlying conditions in low-income neighborhoods, what was done to prepare African-American and Hispanic communities in the early days? Why didn’t the CDC have a centralized epidemiological model, including models of cities and metropolitan areas? And how can the U.S. prepare for future epidemics?

For those who are fans of comparing government to business, this is a very standard business thing to do. Call it an after-action review, or a root cause analysis, or just a plain old audit, it really is vital to learn from experiences, good and bad, so that you can understand what happened and why it happened, and what you can do better next time. I think we can all agree that there is plenty to be learned from this saga, and we all owe it to ourselves to do that. I would hope that much is non-controversial.

But let’s be real, there’s no way to do this that won’t involve politics. You can put together the bluest of blue ribbon panels, staff it with the bona fidiest of experts, and stick entirely to a just-the-facts narrative, it’s still going to be political. That’s because the single biggest actor in this drama was Donald Trump, and his influence on the decisions made at the state and local level was entirely political. Any review that doesn’t do a thorough accounting of this isn’t worth the effort. If Republicans haven’t figured out that Trump’s mishandling of this is what’s killing them in the polls right now, I can’t help them, but I would think they’d want to help themselves. If we manage to get an all-Democratic government next year (please, please), I won’t really expect Republicans to like anything such a report would say. That’s shouldn’t be the point, or anyone’s concern. Do a thorough review, get all the facts out into the open, learn everything there is to be learned, and let the chips fall where they may.

Fauci and football

I hate to rain on your tailgate, but…

The NFL is planning to begin its season on time, but Dr. Anthony Fauci pulled the reins on that optimistic view Wednesday.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble – insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day – it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on CNN. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

The NBA and MLS are planning to resume their seasons in July with players in a bubble. So far, the NFL hasn’t publicly discussed that option. A bubble also seems particularly untenable for college football teams on school campuses.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches, and other essential personnel,” the NFL’s chief medical offers Dr. Allen Sills told ESPN on Thursday. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel, and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”

The NFL has maintained that training camps will start in late July and its regular season will begin as scheduled with the Texans playing at Kansas City on Sept. 10.

Don’t anyone tell Greg Abbott or Ross Bjork about this. That story appeared a day before we got stories about MLB and NHL teams closing their training facilities following positive COVID-19 tests. We’ve already seen other stories about NFL and NCAA teams doing the same. It’s more than fair to ask if teams can even keep their own people safe, let alone their customers. I’m as ready as anyone to see my favorite sports leagues and teams again. I just want it to be done safely, and right now the evidence that can be done at this time is not abundant.

What kind of college football season will there be?

News item: Governor says to expect half-full stadiums for college football.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told athletic directors from the state’s largest schools to expect 50 percent capacity at football games this fall, USA Today reported, but Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork is remaining optimistic.

With more than 80 days to Texas A&M’s first scheduled game against Abilene Christian at Kyle Field, Bjork said this is no time for absolutes when determining college attendance in the late summer and fall, based on the global pandemic.

“As of today, we still have time on our side,” Bjork said Saturday. “And we will not make decisions based on incomplete information.”

USA Today reported that Abbott met with the dozen athletic directors from the state’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs via teleconference Friday, and “told them not to expect capacity at their stadiums to be above 50 percent this fall.”

“The governor was very gracious with his time and provided us with insights into the current situation,” Bjork responded Saturday. “It’s disappointing that information from the meeting leaked since the discussion was meant to be confidential, and I will not disclose the details of the conversation and violate Gov. Abbott’s trust.”

Bjork, hired by A&M a year ago from the same position at Mississippi, added: “As we’ve learned throughout this unprecedented situation, everything remains fluid, and there are a number of scenarios for attending upcoming pro and college sporting events.”

Bjork has expressed confidence this month that Kyle Field might be near its capacity of more than 100,000 as the fall schedule presses on. The Aggies are scheduled to host ACU on Sept. 5 in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

Emphasis mine, and the Chron has a separate story expanding on Bjork’s rather optimistic hypothesis. Abbott had previously stated that he expected college football to be played, though he didn’t specify at what capacity the stadia might be. I will remind you that at this point, all of the professional sports leagues, from the ones that are now playing to those that are still planning their comebacks, are playing in empty arenas. It’s impossible for me to square that with the likes of Kyle Field at full capacity. They can’t both be right.

And on that note, we have this:

The University of Houston abruptly halted voluntary workouts Friday after six student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

In a release, UH said it was suspending workouts – which began June 1 with football and men’s and women’s basketball – “out of an abundance of caution.” The school said the six symptomatic student-athletes had been placed in isolation and contract tracing procedures have been initiated.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks since voluntary workouts began and as the Houston area has seen a recent surge in positive tests for COVID-19.

UH becomes the first school to suspend athletic activities since the NCAA cleared the return of student-athletes back to campus following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UH only tested student-athletes that showed symptoms or came from areas that had a high number of positive cases, a person with knowledge of the protocol told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. Athletic officials have declined comment.

In other words, there are others they didn’t test that might possibly be positive as well. The story lists fourteen other schools that have reported athletes with positive COVID-19 tests, including three in the SEC. It is very likely that all of these athletes will recover fully – I certainly hope they all do – and now that they have been tested they can be quarantined so as not to pass the virus on to anyone else. UH is the only school in this story that actually stopped its voluntary workouts as a result of this, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My point here is that whatever the likes of Greg Abbott and Ross Bjork may say or do, they ultimately have very little control over this virus. And as I keep saying, they don’t seem to have much of a plan for it, either.

UPDATE: Welp.

Several Texans and Cowboys players have tested positive for COVID-19, including Dallas star running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to the NFL Network.

The players who tested positive reportedly weren’t in attendance at their team facilities, which have remained closed due to NFL restrictions limiting their use only to rehabilitating injured players during this global pandemic. Both teams have followed medical protocols.

[…]

NFL teams, including the Texans, have taken steps to ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff. The Texans created a new position, hiring a facility hygiene coordinator earlier this offseason. The Texans are believed to be the first professional sports team to add this type of specialized position.

The intention is to minimize the risk factor of getting or spreading COVID-19 and supervise the custodial staff, which is provided by Aramark.

I know, that’s NFL, not NCAA. My point is, it’s not just a question of whether or not it’s safe to have fans in the stands. There’s still the little matter of whether it’s actually safe to have the players practice and play together.

Abbott expects there to be college football this fall

Pretty optimistic, if you ask me.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he believes college football will begin on schedule in Texas with some fans in the stands, he told KXAN during an interview Friday.

“My prediction is yes we’re going to have college football beginning as scheduled, on schedule, with at least some level of fans in the stands,” the governor said.

Abbott said what is unclear at the moment is what the capacity level would be.

“Would it be strategic and limited to ensure that we have safe distancing practices, there are factors we simply do not know at this time,” Abbott explained about the potential health risks of reopening UT football in the fall.

Abbott stated that the University of Texas at Austin’s athletic director needs a decision by early August. He said the state thinks it should be able to make a decision by then.

This isn’t out of the blue. In April, the chancellors of Texas A&M and Texas Tech said they expect there will be football when they reopen in the fall, though that story didn’t address the question of fans. ESPN quoted Abbott referring to the reopening plans of MLB and the NBA, though those sports and others like MLS are all talking about fan-free games, possibly at a single location. It’s one thing to imagine the games happening, especially if the campuses are open anyway. It’s another to imagine sixty thousand people or more packed into a stadium screaming their lungs out, especially if the pro sports leagues are still playing before nothing but empty seats. Texas A&M at least is thinking about what this might mean.

“We have not gone down the path of examining every section,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said of exactly how many fans Kyle Field will hold with mandated social distancing in place. “There are a lot of scenarios being discussed.”

Like that proverbial glass, Bjork prefers to envision a stadium as half full, not half empty, should restrictions be in place this season.

“We want a full experience, and we’re staying positive — that’s the approach we’re taking right now,” Bjork said. “We know we can pivot quickly if we have to, but we have not mapped that out.”

[…]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has gradually reopened the state in the past month, but he has held off on potentially crowded events such as county fairs. With that in mind, what exactly would Kyle Field look like at, say, 25 percent capacity?

Roughly 25,000 fans would be spread throughout the stadium, and which fans would be allowed in would be determined in a potentially convoluted process.

“You’ve got 102,733 seats,” Bjork said. “Last year we sold about 85,000 season tickets, including right around 35,000 student tickets. That leaves you about 18,000 empty seats. The great thing about Kyle Field is we have a lot of space. So you would start with your infrastructure and analyze it from there, but we would not (ideally) want to decrease our season ticket base. …

“We have a huge footprint, and we just haven’t had to go down that (downsizing) path yet.”

Should social distancing be required at Kyle Field this fall, not only would fans be spaced at least 6 feet apart throughout the stadium, but multiple measures would be in place to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

That might mean everyone but the players and those on the sideline would be required to wear masks (further muffling touchdown celebrations and the Aggies’ tradition of kissing after a score); an abundance of hand sanitizers spread throughout the stadium; and scheduled times for different sections to enter the stadium so there is no squeeze at the gates, where body temperatures might also be checked.

Bjork added that it might be helpful for fans to bring their own beverage containers to limit the number of hands on a cup, making last year’s new policy of selling alcohol throughout the stadium a bit trickier. A&M and its concessions cohort made more than $1 million off alcohol sales at Kyle Field in 2019, according to the university.

“One of the things that we’ve had to do with the alcohol policy is have (employees) pour the bottle or can of beer into a cup (for fans); that’s an SEC policy,” Bjork said. “Does that need to change so you limit as many contacts as possible? Those approaches are being studied right now.”

So are the possibilities of limiting the university-sanctioned tailgating scene around Kyle Field, and the myriad activities in the Aggie Fan Zone on the plaza north of the stadium that create a festival-like atmosphere in the hours before kickoff.

“There’s nothing you can really put in writing right now or have a ‘backup’ plan yet, because there’s too much uncertainty, and it’s way too early,” Bjork said of the Aggies’ plans for Kyle Field starting with the Sept. 5 opener against Abilene Christian.

Which fans would get to attend would also present a knotty question for them. I do expect there to be a lot of pressure for playing college football, for various financial and social reasons. How that manifests remains an open question, and that’s before we take into account the possibility of a resurgence, in which case all of this will seem extremely stupid.

This is an issue that has more than the usual amount of resonance for me. As you know if you’ve been reading this site for awhile or know me in Real Life, I’ve been a member of the Rice Marching Owl Band (MOB) for many years. I don’t know at this point what Rice plans to go regarding its sports teams, nor do I know at this point what the MOB plans to do. (They’ve been busy with the usual end-of-semester activities, saying goodbye to graduating seniors and installing the new drum major and drum minor, that sort of thing.) I really don’t know what I plan to do just yet if everyone is going ahead like normal. On the one hand, we’ll be outside and there will be a reasonable amount of space for us all in the stands. On the other hand, there’s only so much social distancing a band can do and still sound like a band, the deep breathing that playing a wind instrument requires is an extra risk factor for COVID transmission, and everything else about the stadium experience will involve a lot of closer-than-I’m-comfortable-with contact with other people. Maybe if we’ve really got infection rates under control, or there’s true universal testing, I’d be willing to trot out there for another season like it was the Before Times. I’m not feeling that right now. Ask me again in August and we’ll see. The Chron has more.

How about an Arizona/Florida/Texas plan for MLB?

Call it the MLB Plan 3.0 for having a season.

With the spread of the novel coronavirus threatening Major League Baseball’s 2020 season, the league and the union continue to seek ways to salvage the year as best they can. Predictably, that has entailed any number of proposals and contingency plans, including those that would see teams either all isolated in Arizona, or split between Arizona and Florida. On Monday, multiple league sources informed CBS Sports about a different idea that has been discussed in recent days.

In this arrangement, the league would have teams stationed in one of three hubs: Florida, Arizona or Texas. The clubs would then make use of the local major- and minor-league (or spring training) facilities and play regular season games behind closed doors without fans.

One source even expressed guarded optimism about the idea’s chances of coming to fruition.

Ballparks in St. Petersburg (Florida), Phoenix (Arizona), and Arlington (Texas) each have roofs, retractable or otherwise, that would safeguard against rainouts and other extreme weather, allowing for multiple games to be hosted at those sites per day. Theoretically, MLB could also ask teams stationed in Florida and Texas to drive three-plus hours to other MLB parks (Houston’s Minute Maid Park and Miami’s Marlins Park).

It’s unclear if MLB would assign 10 teams to each metropolitan area, or if it would opt for an unbalanced approach that would see 12 teams in one area and eight in another.

[…]

“From our perspective, we don’t have a plan, we have lots of ideas,” [MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred] told Fox Business. “What ideas come to fruition depends on what the restrictions are, what the public health situation is, but we are intent on the idea of making baseball a part of the economic recovery and sort of a milestone on the return to normalcy.”

See here and here for the previous iterations of this idea. The DMN adds more details.

While teams would need to drive as much as two or three hours in Florida to visit certain sites, Texas can offer two Major League stadiums: Globe Life Field in Arlington and Minute Maid Park in Houston. There are also numerous minor league facilities such as Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco and The Dell Diamond in Round Rock. There are also numerous top-tier college facilities, if those are made available.

[…]

Among things to be decided if Texas becomes more realistic: How would MLB temporarily realign from two 15-team leagues to three 10-team leagues? Under the Arizona/Florida idea, rather than having teams divided into the National and American Leagues, they would compete in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

Also, which teams would be asked to give up the relative comforts of their own spring training facilities to temporarily plan in Texas? If MLB moves towards a league that is geared simply to be TV-friendly without fans, it might make sense to have leagues set up based on time zones, with East Coast teams in Florida, teams in the Central in Texas and the rest of the teams in Arizona.

There are eight teams with Central Time Zone home bases: Both Chicago teams, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Houston and the Rangers. Colorado is a Mountain Time Zone-based club, an hour behind the Central. A team from the Eastern Time Zone, perhaps Detroit, might need to be added.

Another question: Would the Rangers be able to use all of the numerous state-of-the-art amenities afforded them in Globe Life Field? Or would teams playing in their home stadiums have to give up some access to major league amenities if the majority of teams are playing in minor league stadiums?

Teams would also need some secondary bases for depth options since the minor league season is becoming more and more unlikely. That’s where minor league and college facilities could become more of a point of conversation.

As the Chron notes, Texas A&M has expressed interest in letting its stadium be used in this scenario. I’m sure other colleges would as well. Normally, even the biggest college stadium would be far too small for an MLB game, but with there being no spectators, that’s not an issue. So who knows? One other obstacle, as the CBS story notes, is that some prominent players, like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, have said they don’t want to be separated from their families for the four months this would take (assuming no return to regular stadium action in the interim). I feel like that is surmountable if this ever gets past the “there are no bad ideas” stage of the discussion. For now, MLB is just making sure that it has something it can try to execute in the event that things have improved enough to move forward with a season.

Whither college football?

All NCAA spring sports were canceled due to coronavirus, beginning with March Madness and going through baseball and softball and soccer and everything else. Everyone has been looking forward to the fall when things were supposed to be back to “normal” again, but no one knows for sure what might happen.

NCAA Division I college sports in Texas is a billion-dollar business for the 23 participating schools, and athletic directors estimate 75 percent to 85 percent of that revenue is tied directly to football in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, media rights fees and, for most schools, direct contributions from the students or the university.

All those revenue streams are in jeopardy with 20 weeks to go before the scheduled football season openers in late August, which is why college athletic directors are game-planning every potential scenario that comes to mind.

“The financial repercussions of not playing a football season are so significant there is going to be a way to do it and play it and do it responsibly,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said last week on KBME (790 AM), the school’s sports flagship station.

“If you don’t have that revenue stream that is associated with football, it gets dire very fast. … I am confident we are going to find a way through this and we’ll be able to play the season, whether it’s pushed back a little bit or the idea of playing in the spring.”

At Texas A&M, athletic director Ross Bjork is running through similar scenarios involving the mathematics of time and money.

Regular and postseason football requires four months with the addition of the College Football Playoff, and that must be preceded, Bjork said during a conference call last week, by a 60- to 75-day preparation period for players who have been outside the watchful, demanding eyes of strength coaches for several weeks.

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said last week October would not be too late to begin a complete 2020 season, which would presume a return of players, based on Bjork’s time model, in mid-July.

However, what flies in Texas might not work in other states.

As an example, the executive officer of Santa Clara County in northern California, which includes Stanford University and Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week he did not expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

A&M, Bjork noted, is scheduled to play Colorado at College Station on Sept. 19. There’s no guarantee, however, Colorado will be in the same stage of recovery as Texas by mid-September.

Accordingly, Bjork said he expects a “layered” approach to football’s return, based on the advice of conference and university leaders and local and state governments.

“There’s not one trigger point,” he said. “We’re all just guessing, really. We don’t know what the data will tell us. We can model, but until you know when you’re starting or when you can have togetherness, it’s kind of hard to predict.”

It’s hard to imagine how sports like Major League Baseball can contemplate their return if the start of the NCAA football season is in jeopardy. Of course, MLB has the “play their games in hermetically sealed stadia in a small number of locations with no fans” option, which college football does not. I don’t doubt the desire or the intent to bring the games back, even if starting the season in December and essentially playing a spring season is a possible way forward. But as with everything else, there’s only so long you can push back one season before you push up against the next one, and there’s no way to know what the effects will be on fans, who may not be ready to tailgate and pack into venues just yet. It’s good for the leagues to prepare for all possibilities. You never know, things might go better than expected. It’s just all so massively weird right now.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

Flying motorcycles

Look out above.

A team of engineers at Texas A&M University is participating in the $2 million-plus GoFly Prize competition, an event sponsored by the aerospace company Boeing to challenge engineers to develop flying devices that are relatively quiet, fit in the garage and can carry one person for 20 miles without refueling or recharging.

The College Station team, called Texas A&M Harmony, and its motorcycle-like device has so far received $70,000 as a winning team in the competition’s paper design and prototype phases. It’s now preparing for the final competition in which teams fly full-scale designs in early 2020.

[…]

“People have been trying to build flying cars for the last 70, 80 years,” said Moble Benedict, team captain and assistant professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. “We still don’t see flying cars anywhere. And that’s because there are some inherent issues with the designs people are coming up with.”

Some designs would produce flying transports that are too loud for neighborhoods, he said, others that are too large for the typical commuter. The GoFly Prize competition addresses such problems by requiring that competing devices be no larger than 8½ feet in any direction. And from 50 feet away, they can’t be louder than 87 decibels – the sound level of a hair dryer.

“At first we thought this was impossible,” Benedict said. “We thought these were unrealistic requirements from GoFly. But then we said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

They soon came up with Aria. Like its namesake, the operatic aria sung by just one person, the flying device is designed for one person sitting upright. Two stacked rotors, essentially large fans that sit on top of each other and turn in opposite directions, enable it to fly.

The Aria could reach top speeds between 80 mph and 90 mph when the driver throttles forward. A flight computer stabilizes the vehicle and allows it to be controlled with a flight stick, almost like playing a video game. For the GoFly competition, the team will pilot the vehicle remotely and have a 200-pound dummy in the driver’s seat.

The rotors are specially designed to hold down the noise and not to pester neighbors when early-morning commuters take off for work.

“It won’t sound like a swarm of hornets in the morning,” said Farid Saemi, the team’s lead on electric powertrain propulsion and a doctoral student studying aerospace engineering.

Between this and the Uber flying cars that are (supposedly) being tested by NASA, 2020 could be a banner year for flying vehicles. Or possibly a banner year for internal combustion engines falling from the sky. I don’t envy the next head of the FAA when the rulemaking process gets started. The cost of thie A&M flying motorcycle is $500K, and I presume that’s without the customization options. Start saving your pennies now if you want one of these babies, is what I’m saying. I’ll try to keep an eye on these developments, while hopefully remaining safely under cover. The downtown tunnels have never looked better.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

What’s next for the now-canceled white nationalist rally at A&M

The legal experts are weighing in.

Saunie Schuster, an attorney for The NCHERM Group, which provides consulting for schools on First Amendment issues, said that was the organizer’s big mistake.

“You can be here and you can speak even if we hate what you’re saying, but you can’t disrupt the function of Texas A&M,” Schuster said. “Because a person was killed and people were seriously injured in Charlottesville, the potential for harm is not just speculative. If he’s linking the two events together, he’s seeing that as an outcome.”

Southern Methodist University constitutional law professor Dale Carpenter said the school’s position — that the rally presents a huge public safety risk and could disrupt normal activities on campus — is “legitimate,” but the school may face some legal backlash anyway. On Monday evening, rally organizer Wiginton said as much: “I guess my lawyers will now be suing the state of Texas.”

Carpenter said the university “can’t simply ban a controversial speaker because others might react violently.” He said blocking speech is an absolute last resort to prevent violence, not a first resort. He suggested the university may be able to negotiate a different time or place for the rally but said he doubts A&M will “succeed in simply prohibiting this event and its subject matter on campus.”

“That billing is too vague to constitute a true threat of violence, in my view. Indeed, the fact that Texas A&M specifically cited that billing as a justification may weaken its claim that the cancellation was for content-neutral reasons,” Carpenter added.

Meanwhile, Schuster said, “if the people coming to do a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally remain in a public area or do so in a manner that doesn’t disrupt the educational function of the institution, the school is going to be highly unlikely to be able to shut it down or restrict it.”

See here for the background. The racist organizer had talked about having a march on campus instead, which might be harder to restrict, but in the end decided to call it off, at least for now. He’s still talking lawsuit, however. My layman’s opinion of what A&M did was that it was defensible on public safety grounds, but that is no guarantee they would prevail in court if it comes down to it, which it may yet do. Other legal experts were less sanguine.

“If all it took to shut down a speaker was to threaten a riot, we would all find ourselves with very little free speech at all,” said Ari Cohn, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program, a campus civil rights watchdog group. “Allowing the possibility of a bottle-throwing mob to justify curtailing speech only incentivizes violence. That is an untenable result, from a legal and practical standpoint.”

Cohn said that the [racist jerk]’s link between Charlottesville and the planned A&M rally—a main reason the university gave for canceling the event—is protected under free speech. “Under applicable constitutional precedent, it constitutes neither incitement to imminent lawless action nor a true threat, and without more, that notice does not justify canceling the event,” Cohn said. “Moreover, violence committed in one place does not justify curtailing freedom of expression in other places. We do not discard the First Amendment’s protections because someone, somewhere reacted inappropriately to speech—and to be clear, violence is never an acceptable response to speech. But to sacrifice our First Amendment rights on the altar of preventing violence is incompatible with our understanding of free speech.”

[…]

“[Texas A&M], in denying White Lives Matters [and other racist jerk]’s access to public areas to engage in speech—notwithstanding how deplorable and lacking in value that speech may be—more likely than not is violating the First Amendment by engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination,” JT Morris, an Austin-based attorney specializing in First Amendment law, said in an email. Morris said [racist jerk] could file a lawsuit immediately seeking an emergency temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, asking a judge to force the university to grant [racist jerk]’s group access to campus for the rally. “This is a really tough situation to balance First Amendment rights and public safety,” Morris said. “We’re looking at protecting speech of minimal value—to put it gently—that is espoused by a very small group of people, at the risk of serious harm to public safety.” As Morris notes, the First Amendment protects what most of us consider to be hate speech, unless that speech crosses the line and incites violence. “I’m not sure the White Lives Matter [and] [other racist jerk] stuff is quite there—yet,” Morris said.

As I’ve said, I support A&M’s actions here. If they wind up losing in court, that would be unfortunate, but at least they tried. Slate, which takes a national look at this issue, has more.

White nationalist rally at A&M canceled

I’ve been on the road with limited Internet access, so I’m just now catching up on recent events. Unlike our garbage president, I wholeheartedly condemn the appalling racist violence committed in Charlottesville by a bunch of Nazi scum. As such, I was heartened to see this.

A white nationalist rally planned on Texas A&M University’s campus has been canceled, apparently out of concern for student safety, officials confirmed Monday.

The school made the decision after consulting law enforcement and “considerable study” because of “concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff and the public.”

“Texas A&M’s support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned,” the university said in a statement Monday afternoon.

“However, in this case circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event.”

You can learn the details of this now-canceled event here; I have no desire to give these jackwads any mentions. The asshole who organized this thing says in the story that he plans to sue. I think based on the deplorable events in Charlottesville that A&M has a pretty good public safety argument to make, but I guess we’ll see what the courts have to say. It’s certainly possible A&M could get overruled. Given that, you might want to make note of this Maroon Wall counterprotest, which had been prepped to go on at the same time, just in case it is still needed. It would be best for this to now be obsolete, but if that is not the case then it sure would be nice to completely overwhelm these fascists with huge numbers of actual decent people. Beyond that, kudos to the legislators who called on A&M Chancellor John Sharp to cancel the event, and to Sharp for heeding the call. In the meantime, if you need something to do now, there are things that can be done in Austin, in Missouri City, and in Houston. People need to speak up, but we also need to take action. The Rivard Report has more.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Still more hyperloops

They had a hyperloop design contest at Texas A&M:

In the end, Elon Musk couldn’t resist showing up to the competition he helped inspire. The billionaire SpaceX CEO made a surprise appearance at the end of the Hyperloop pod design competition at Texas A&M University Saturday, eliciting a rapturous reaction from the thousand-plus audience of high school and college engineers who were there to compete for a chance to test their designs on Musk’s personal Hyperloop track later this year.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s team was awarded the top prize, and will now go on to build an actual pod to race on the under-construction track near SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters. The Delft University of Technology from the Netherlands were the next runners-up. Auburn University won in the category of best overall subsystem. Twenty-two teams in all will go on to test their pods in Hawthorne, although up to 10 other teams could also qualify after further judging in the coming weeks, according to SpaceX.

Dozens of other winners in propulsion, design, levitation, and braking were also announced at the end of the two-day competition, which also featured technology demonstrations like Arx Pax’s hover engine, and a speech by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The event was meant to generate excitement among engineers and the public for the tube-based, transonic, vacuum transport system popularized by the billionaire Musk in 2013. But it was also meant to serve as a rebuttal to skeptics who dismissed the Hyperloop as too fanciful, impractical, and expensive to exist in the real world.

“The public wants something new,” Musk told the attendees. “And you’re going to give it to them.”

See here and here for some background. I still think this is all pie in the sky, but it is nice to think that there might be better ways to travel than what we have now. Maybe if this doesn’t work something like it will. Texas Monthly has more.

On to the benefits

Now that same sex marriage is the law of the land, Texas employers need to make sure that the spousal benefits they offer apply to all spouses.

RedEquality

“If an employer provides benefits to anyone who is currently married, they must now treat gay and lesbian employees the same and offer them the exact same benefits,” said Neel Lane, a San Antonio lawyer at corporate law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“The ruling has an enormous impact on employers and employees in Texas,” said Lane, who represents on a pro bono basis a gay couple in Texas who have challenged the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.

[…]

Lawyers said they have been inundated with calls – mainly from small- and medium-sized business owners – seeking legal advice on updating employment and benefits forms but also asking if there are ways under Texas law to avoid having to make changes.

James Griffin, an expert on employment benefits and federal tax law at Jackson Walker in Dallas, said the legal advice he is giving his business clients is simple.

“Don’t waste your time looking for ways to defeat this,” Griffin said. “The Supreme Court decision is very broad. This issue is done. Make the changes and move on.”

Griffin and other lawyers say most large corporations implemented policies years ago that extend benefits to same-sex couples.

But they say some Texas-based companies that operate exclusively within the state have not addressed the issue because they have never had employees come forward and say they are gay and want benefits for their partners. Lawyers say that because Texas political leaders have been adamantly anti-same-sex marriage and benefits, many workers were afraid to step forward.

“Now, because of the Supreme Court ruling, a lot of people who have been reluctant are going to raise their hand for the benefits and the companies have to address it,” said Mark Shank, an employment law partner at Gruber Hurst Elrod Johansen Hail Shank in Dallas.

Among the employers who have already taken action is the state of Texas.

The state’s bureaucracy is moving forward to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision, even as state elected officials – including Gov. Greg Abbott – have lambasted the landmark ruling.

Starting Wednesday – less than a week after the decision – the Employees Retirement System of Texas, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System will extend benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian employees.

That means the state’s largest employer, the State of Texas, will join the list of those providing equal benefits to same-sex partners.

The decision is latest sign that state government is accepting the ruling, which struck down gay marriage bans in Texas and other states. And that bureaucratic churn provides a notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling by Abbott and other top Republicans.

“This is all kind of new for us,” said Catherine Terrell, a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System of Texas. “We’re just looking at what other employers have seen.”

The state employees some 311,000 people, according to the state auditor’s office. Terrell said ERS, which handles benefits for most state employees, was anticipating that about 1,500 spouses of gay employees would now enroll for benefits.

A “notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling”. I like that. When you consider all the county clerks who ignored Ken Paxton’s legal “advice”, it’s quite clear who’s really out of touch here. That doesn’t mean they’re going to acknowledge it any time soon.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas is also providing these benefits now; they weren’t included in the Trail Blazers post. Regarding the UT and A&M systems, I like the quote in this Trib story about that:

Professors at Texas’ public universities celebrated the extension of benefits, saying the policy change will offer relief for many gay and lesbian employees and reduce the rate at which they leave Texas institutions in search of schools that accommodate same-sex couples.

Patrick Burkart, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, said extending benefits for same-sex couples will put the university on the “same competitive footing” as other research universities across the country because it will help retain and recruit top faculty and staffers.

“What we’re going to find out is how expensive it’s been to keep a discriminatory policy on the books as we have,” said Burkart, the secretary and treasurer of the A&M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which has pushed for the benefits for years.

Burkart, who has served on several faculty search committees, indicated that the previous policy denying benefits to same-sex spouses or partners kept potential candidates from applying for posts at the school.

Hundreds of colleges across the country offer benefits to same-sex spouses or same-sex domestic partners.

”I think our university has suffered for it, and now is a great time to catch up and gather our strengths,” Burkart said.

I’m willing to bet none of our “saber-rattling” state leaders ever considered that, and if any of them did, I seriously doubt they cared. It is of course one big reason why so many private employers have been doing this for so long – you’ve got to keep up with the competition. Burying your head in the sand never works.

Let’s go back to the first story for a minute to see an example of another place where they can demonstrate that:

Legal experts also say the first major domino likely to fall will occur in federal court in Wichita Falls, where a federal judge in March, at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Paxton, issued an injunction that prevented the federal Family and Medical Leave Act from applying to same-sex couples in Texas.

Because of the ruling, Texas was one of four states in the U.S. where FMLA benefits have been denied to gay couples involved in civil unions.

“That decision will almost certainly be reversed right away,” said David Coale, a partner at Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox. “State political leaders may try to fight it, but they are going to lose, and then they are going to have to pay a lot of money to lawyers for pursuing frivolous legal claims.”

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit involved federal employees in Texas, who were covered by an Obama executive order extending employment benefits to same-sex spouses. In the face of Obergfell v. Hodges, the injunction that was granted is clearly out of order. I presume a motion to lift the injunction will be filed shortly, and will be granted right away. Any other outcome is unfathomable.

Moving on, all the newly-married couples in Texas can now sign up for health insurance if they need to.

Same-sex couples who marry have had what the Affordable Care Act considers a “qualifying life event.” And that triggers a special 60-day enrollment period to purchase health insurance from Texas’ federally run, online marketplace, a group promoting enrollment said Tuesday.

Enroll America, a nonprofit supporting Obamacare, said in a release that under the health law, marriage is one of the unusual phenomena that allow consumers a mid-year bite at the apple. The others are having a baby, moving to a different coverage area, getting divorced and experiencing certain changes of income that would affect tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies.

“People don’t know that the special enrollment period exists,” Enroll America spokeswoman Annette Raveneau said in an interview.

[…]

Newly married same-sex couples and others with qualifying life events can sign up all by themselves, using HealthCare.gov.

Raveneau, though, strongly recommends that shoppers meet in person with a certified assistance counselor or Obamacare navigator. They can schedule appointments using Enroll America’s “Get Covered Connector.”

“The people who use an in-person assister, which are free, are twice as likely to finish the enrollment process and actually get a plan,” she said.

How many people might be able to do this? We can only guess, in part because the state has no plans to count how many same-sex couples get hitched.

Though Texas collects detailed data on marriages by county and age, getting better information on same-sex marriage rates in Texas could take years since the state has no plans to separately track those unions. Following Friday’s ruling, the Department of State Health Services released a new gender-neutral marriage application for counties to use. The application does not ask for the sex of either of the applicants.

“We are not specifically tracking those at this time,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the department. “The application asks for Applicant One and Applicant Two and currently does not ask for gender.”

States in which same-sex marriage was legal before Friday have taken different record-keeping approaches. Oregon, Vermont and Washington track marriage licenses specifically issued to same-sex couples. California and Florida simply track all marriages, and do not differentiate between same-sex and opposite-sex unions.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated in 2013 that there were 252,000 married same-sex couples in the country, but later said that was likely an overestimate, citing flawed data. A recent paper from a census researcher put the figure at closer to 170,000.

The patchwork of data collection means reliable numbers on how many same-sex couples are getting married in different states may not be available until the next census in 2020, said Drew DeSilver, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center who has researched the issue.

I guess I’m not too bothered by this, since there doesn’t seem to be a single standard practice nationwide. It would be nice to know, but given the way the updated form is worded, I understand the reasoning. I’m sure there will be a million ways to come up with reasonably accurate estimates – new Obamacare enrollments will be one data point – and we’ll have Census data soon enough.

Moving on to the benefits issue

And as we move on to other fights, the terrain changes.

RedEquality

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened the door for state agencies to withhold benefits from same-sex couples Friday, hours after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

In a letter released Friday afternoon, Abbott ordered heads of state agencies to prioritize religious freedom, writing that no adverse action should be taken against a state official “on account of the person’s act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief.”

“This order applies to any agency decision, including but not limited to granting or denying benefits, managing agency employees, entering or enforcing agency contracts, licensing and permitting decisions, or enforcing state laws and regulations,” Abbott wrote.

In anticipation of this response, a lawsuit has already been filed for force the state to recognize the same-sex unions of its employees and grant them the same benefits. I have no idea what legal justification Abbott thinks he has for this, but we already knew he was a crappy lawyer.

The Trib makes it clear that this is little more than saber-rattling on Abbott’s part.

Public employers including Texas agencies, universities and schools may now be required to extend benefits to spouses of married gay employees in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday that marriages between same-sex couples are constitutional.

But when those benefits will be extended is unclear as state officials examine the high court’s ruling and consider new policies.

“At this point, all I can say is we’re aware of the ruling and we’re examining it,” said Catherine Terrell, director of governmental affairs for the state Employee Retirement System, which oversees retirement and health benefits for state employees and those of most public universities and community colleges.

A spokeswoman for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas, which serves public education employees, echoed that sentiment, saying it was also “analyzing” the ruling’s impact on the programs it administers.

The ruling is likely to have little impact on state employees’ retirement benefits, because employees can already assign any person as a beneficiary, Terrell said. But “the major benefit issue” could be with employees’ health insurance plans.

[…]

Legal experts agreed that when it comes to extending benefits for same-sex couples, the state is now bound by the Supreme Court ruling to recognize all marriages.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and Texas Constitution expert at the University of Houston, said the state has no legal basis to exclude same-sex couples from the benefits it offers married couples.

“If you’re legally married by the law, no agency or government can restrict you,” Rottinghaus said. “Exactly how this is applied in Texas is going to be a bit shaky.”

But he added that extending benefits to same-sex couples is inevitable. “It’s not a question of when, but how,” Rottinghaus said.

That’s true of county clerks, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a straight line to get there. There’s already been a lawsuit filed to push the issue, in anticipation of this reaction from Abbott. It would be nice to think that we could avoid doing this the hard way, but of course we won’t. We will get where we need to be, We’re just gonna be mulish about it.

The feral hogs of Montgomery County

Because three blog posts about feral hogs are better than two.

Feral hogs – which some find more pesky than mosquitoes and more invasive than fire ants – are alive and well in Montgomery County.

Officials in The Woodlands say that there have been no recent sightings of wild pigs in neighborhoods – but in a growing problem has been reported throughout the county.

“We have not been hearing anything about feral hogs for the better part of several years,” Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the Township, said.

He said that the boars generally reside in larger spaces – closer to water sources like creeks.

“We know of them in natural preserves,” Nunes added. “When it’s dry, they come into neighborhoods looking for food.”

Recent rains have resulted in no sightings, he said.

Keith Crenshaw, with the Houston branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Urban Wildlife Program, said swine in the city stay near drainage ditches and flood control corridors.

Crenshaw said Kingwood had an increase in sightings in October, after land was cleared and the way was opened for hogs to move into neighborhoods.

“The wildlife will disperse,” he said. “And hogs don’t have a major predator other than people.”

Still, Crenshaw maintains that wild pigs may live in suburban areas without humans knowing.

“It’s totally likely that people aren’t even aware they’re here,” he said.

[…]

As the county’s human population continues to grow and more land is developed, [Montgomery County extension agent for agriculture Michael] Heimer expects more hogs will move into neighborhoods.

For example, he said several homes will be constructed in what was formerly Camp Strake, a 2,000-acre property north of The Woodlands.

“When they start developing that, we’ll see a lot of wildlife displaced,” Heimer said.

In the meantime, he said it would help the extension office if county residents would report any hog sightings.

“A lot of this goes unrecorded,” he said. “Anything we can do to get information will help. It gives us a way to document what’s going on.”

We’re familiar with the feral hogs of Kingwood. Am I a bad person for admitting that the thought of feral hogs roaming the master-planned streets of Kingwood and The Woodlands makes me giggle? As for what the good people of The Woodlands can do about this menace, I recommend they start by downloading the Texas A&M feral hog app for helpful advice. Keeping the little buggers in line is everyone’s job.

Yes, but why is traffic so bad at these places?

Two things that aren’t mentioned in this story but need to be.

Two adjoining stretches of U.S. 59 in downtown and west Houston fared the worst regionally on an annual list of the 100-most congested freeways in the state, compiled by Texas Department of Transportation and Texas A&M Transportation Institute officials.

[David] Schrank, a co-author of the report, said changes to methodology led to some spikes in average congestion along certain routes. Areas with major freeway interchanges saw average congestion estimates increase, giving planners a fuller view of the gridlock afflicting most areas of the state.

The additional traffic is having a pronounced effect in certain areas, Schrank said: “These areas are teetering on really, really heavy congestion for long hours of the day.”

Houston’s two worst freeway segments are along U.S. 59. The stretch from Interstate 10 to Texas 288 ranks second-worst in the state, with an average of 743,006 hours of delay annually, per mile. The freeway from 288 to Loop 610 West ranks third-worst, with 730,655 hours of annual delay, per mile. Only a segment of Interstate 35 in downtown Austin fares worse.

Along both parts of U.S. 59, the new figures show a worsening pattern. Traffic on the eastern segment increased roughly 50 percent. Intense traffic at the interchanges with I-10 and Texas 288 was largely to blame, Schrank said.

“When you have a really, really bad quarter-mile or half-mile, it makes the whole area much worse,” he said.

Part of the problem is design and high demand for the freeway during many hours of the day, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“You clearly have as much traffic going north and eastbound on 59 in the afternoon as you do in the morning,” Emmett said, saying any remedy needs to consider the traffic flow.

That same problem causes backups on 288 northbound as well. Interchanges are a big part of the problem, no doubt. I-10 eastbound at I-45 South, where the one exit lane can be backed up to the Studemont exit or farther, is a classic example of this. But as I’ve noted before, the main issue with 59 northbound as you approach 288/45 is that it narrows down from five lanes to three at the downtown spur, then down to two lanes at the 288/45 turnoff. The volume of traffic that wants to continue north on 59 past these points is just too much for the available capacity. I hesitate to make absolute statements, but I don’t see how this can ever be resolved by adding more lane capacity, because there just isn’t the room for it. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.

The other point is that one big reason why there’s so much demand for that limited amount of lane space is because we’ve spent the past 20 years building much more lane capacity from Loop 610 and/or Beltway 8 outward on all the major freeways. A lot more people now live out where those expanded freeways take them, and they’re all trying to fit into those squeezed spaces on their way to and from their homes. That’s not the only reason for this – as noted, the traffic problem exists well outside the rush hours these days – but the same principle is in play. There’s much more demand for these freeways outside these urban core congestion zones, and that demand puts extra pressure on the places that are least able to handle it.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We’ve pretty much maxed out our ability to deal with traffic by throwing more lanes at it. Unless we start double-decking or building tunnels, what we’ve got most places is what we’re going to have. One thing we can do but have not done is provide viable alternatives to taking the freeways for the people who are mostly moving about in town. Taking the people who are making short trips out of the equation and you can free up some space for the long haul drivers who have no other alternative. It’s the same argument I make about urban core restaurants providing bike parking to help keep spaces available for the customers who have to drive to get there. That’s going to require a much bigger commitment to and investment in public transportation, and so far there isn’t much evidence that’s going to happen. If they really thought about it, the people who have to navigate these traffic disasters every day ought to be the biggest supporter of expanded mass transit precisely because it will help get the people who would have options other than driving off the road. Someday I hope that argument sinks in.